Thursday, April 11, 2013

"Winter of '79"

There's only really one topic to write about at the moment over here in the U. of K.

Next week the nation (those of them who are interested) buries an old lady who ran things back in the 1980s. She's divided opinion sharply (and I mean sharply) pretty much since the day she came to power, and in death she seems to have lost none of her polarising fascination.

The media is awash with encomia and hatchet jobs in pretty much equal measure; social media is engaged in vast contest to see who can be most pleased at her demise; such was her stature (if that's the right word) that Parliament reassembled for a day this week, at vast expense, to perform a seven-hour panegyric in which one side lauded her to the heavens and half-seriously wished she was still in charge, and the other danced an intricate waltz in which it criticised her record without actually ever appearing to do so. Thirty years ago the very same party was calling for her head on a pike, and not entirely figuratively, either.

Newspapers have been filling pages with pictures of kids gleefully burning photos of her, in much the same way Middle Eastern folks occasionally torch an American flag. Now, most of the people in these pictures are clearly twenty-somethings, which means they were either not even born when she left office, or at the very most were still wearing onesies and clutching soft toys. By the time they became intellectually aware of the world around them they were at the fag-end of the Blair years.

So why are so many kids dancing on Thatcher's grave? Have they been sitting at their grandparents' knees, absorbing folkloric tales of one woman's malevolence towards an entire nation? Or are they just a bunch of try-hard hipsters getting in nice and early on the latest social trend?

And, to be honest, why is Margaret Thatcher being singled out for this treatment? Is it the sudden prevalence of social media? (If so, what's going to happen when George W Bush kicks on?) Or is there really something deep-rooted in the national psyche that continues to hold her in contempt for some dimly-recalled offences?

I hasten to add that there are entire swathes of British society that felt her lash good and proper: communities flattened by mass unemployment, entire sectors of the economy torched. But what slightly puzzles me is why everyone seems to believe that Thatcher emerged fully-formed, foaming of mouth and blazing of eye, to lay waste a Britain that was, at the very moment of her election, a paradise of plenty where everyone worked and everyone was adequately provided for. In other words, they seem to think she single-handedly demolished the country.

And that just isn't true. Britain was already in a bad way.

In 1976, Britain had to go cap-in-hand to the International Monetary Fund for a loan after inflation hit 27%. Unemployment was at a then-record; there were strikes in 1978-1979 that left uncollected rubbish piling up in the streets and fuel shortages; the Labour government even considered passing laws to restrict trade union influence.

And most of this before Thatcher even became leader of her party.

I make these points not from any love for radical right-wing policies, but from the suspicion that Margaret Thatcher, to a limited extent, has had a raw deal. She came to power and dealt with the existing conditions according to her convictions. The situation was already the situation. I don't care to speculate as to where we would be now if thing had turned out differently, but I think anyone who's passing judgement on her reign as Prime Minister should have a care and take into consideration the conditions that formed the context to her convictions and policies.

And, moving on belatedly to the music, here's another misconception. Most of the late-70s/early 80s politically-oriented musicians - your Billy Braggs, your Clash, your Paul Wellers and your Tom Robinsons, are all lumped together and considered to be musicians who came to prominence when they harnessed their muse in protest at the devastation that Thatcher's policies wrought.

But that's simply wrong. They were well on their journey before she even arrived. The Clash's "White Riot" was released in 1977, almost two years before Thatcher was elected. It was only the Jam's two last albums that coincided with Maggie's reign. Only Billy Bragg could reasonably be said to have made his reputation through his opposition to the Iron Lady.

Even Tom Robinson, who wrote a fair few inflammatory songs in his time, was largely done and dusted as a top-selling musician when the Conservative revolution began. And while I've always admired his music and particularly his lyrics, his convictions, none of Robinson's best-known songs can ever be attributed to a reaction to Thatcherism.

"Winter of '79" I particularly love because it's rooted in daily experience, in events and pastimes that everyone knows. Like the Jam's "That's Entertainment" or "Down in the Tube Station at Midnight" it's a slice of real life from an industry that very rarely peddled reality. Like most of Robinson's work it's shot through with the sort of paranoia that agitators and activists all felt at the time, the nagging feeling that you were being watched, being tracked. In many cases, even today, it really isn't all that paranoid a notion, but nonetheless, with the distance of time and age, I sometimes find myself chortling and thinking to myself that he can't be serious.

The problem is, he was, and there are people who'll attest to the fact that it still happens today. Ask anyone who's protested against the extension of Heathrow Airport in London, or who have protested in the financial district, or during a G8 meeting. It doesn't require a swivel-eyed radical right-winger at the helm of the country to have surveillance squads checking on the activities of protesters. Maybe our experiences since 9/11 have made these activities more expedient, but they're not new and it's not just the conservatives that deploy them.

"Half Full Glass of Wine"

It's quite a pleasant surprise to learn, or realise, that one's journey of discovery in music never really ends. I often worry that my interest in learning more about the subject didn't just freeze one day in the late 1980s and enter some sort of statis. But looking back through the entries here I note more than a few songs that are the result of serendipitous encounters, be it through Jools Holland's impeccably-curated late night shows, the ever-inventive advertising industry or a chance encounter with a teenager's iPod. Some of what I've come across for the first time can be qualified as my going back through time to years when I should have been more aware of what was going on around me (viz. Jesus & Mary Chain). Some more recent SongsWithoutWhich are pieces that I've known for years, but which my mind, heart, taste and maturity have only just caught up with, if you see what I mean. This song, too, when I first heard it, sounded like something I'd missed from a Cream album (though Lord knows there weren't many of those). Half-speed guitar built to sound like Clapton's "woman tone" on "Sunshine of Your Love", a vocal that isn't a million miles away from Jack Bruce's on the same song. Even the drumming seems like it's been to Ginger Baker school. And then there's the glorious sudden shift in tempo at the end of the intro: confident, cheeky, as if they'd been listening to the Faces' "Stay With Me". And that's before the song takes off into its own little world of doubt, faithlessness and uncertainty. "Said you wouldn't be home late tonight. I gave up waiting at seventeen past midnight. Now my only company's a half full glass of wine." Everything about this feels 1960s; the slightly lazy groove of the riff, the falsetto vocal, the harmonies, all of it. If Jellyfish can be said to have channeled the 70s and 80s, then on this track Tame Impala is caught somewhere between 1968 and 1975.